No Business Like the Supernatural Business

By Pericles LewisFebruary 15, 2017

No Business Like the Supernatural Business

Supernatural Entertainments by Simone Natale

MODERN SPIRITUALISM had its start in the “burned-over district” of western New York, so called for the intensity of its response to the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, during a period of rapid industrialization epitomized by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.

Joseph Smith received the golden plates of the Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni near Palmyra in the 1820s. The Seventh-Day Adventists and, ultimately, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, trace their origins to William Miller of Hampton in eastern New York, who predicted the second coming of Christ in 1843 or 1844. Millenarian sects like the Millerites and communal movements like the Shakers and the Oneida Community found fertile soil in the burned-over district, as did such social movements as feminism, which achieved its first organized expression in the Seneca Falls Convention of July 1848.

A less durable but even more popular movement began in Hydesville in March of that year when two girls, Kate and Maggie Fox, aged 12 and 15, claimed to have received contact from “the spirit world.” The messages came in the form of rappings, loud knocks resembling the Morse Code of the recently invented telegraph, supposedly sent at first by a peddler said to have been murdered in Hydesville, but later by a range of the distinguished dead, most prominently Benjamin Franklin. From their neighborhood in Hydesville, their audience grew quickly. They “performed” their rappings in a public theater in Rochester, then mostly in semi-public settings in New York and other large cities.

Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, labeled their movement “modern spiritualism” in 1852, and a journalist for the Tribune, Eliab Capron, wrote a book with that title in 1855. Soon began a craze for contact with the dead through rapping, table tilting, automatic writing, and spirit photography, which spread throughout the United States and across the Atlantic, and which has been the subject of much biographical writing, including the sometimes credulous Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism by Barbara Weisberg. The unprecedented casualties of the Civil War only enhanced the attraction of such methods of communication.

By the time Kate Fox arrived in London in 1871, there were hundreds of mediums performing similar séances, most famously Daniel Dunglas Home, a Scot who had lived in Troy, New York, in his youth and who in 1868 allegedly levitated out one window of Ashley Place, London, and in at the window of the next room, where sat three (impressionable) aristocrats.

Many eminent Victorians, in the midst of a crisis of faith inspired by doubts about the literal accuracy of the Bible, or by the theory of evolution, took the phenomena of spiritualism amazingly seriously. Among those who sought scientific evidence for the reality of spiritualism (and were often disappointed) were social reformer Robert Owen, psychologist William James, future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, and philosopher Henry Sidgwick, first president of the Society for Psychical Research. The 1888 confession (soon recanted) of Margaret Fox that the rapping sounds had been made by the two girls cracking their fingers, toes, and other joints did little to slow the enthusiasm, but there was a substantial industry of debunkers, the most distinguished of whom was the magician Harry Houdini. Whether sympathetic or debunking in approach, modern historians and critics have tended, like their Victorian forebears, to take the questions raised by spiritualism rather seriously. The best study to date is Janet Oppenheim’s The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914.

In Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture, Simone Natale hints that attending séances could also be fun, and he suggests that we should think of much spiritualist activity as a species of “show business.” Natale begins his thoughtful study of spiritualism and media with the Fox sisters’ first public appearance, at the Corinthian Hall in Rochester on November 14, 1849. This was just the first of many successful efforts to “market” spiritualism over the course of the century, ranging from semi-private and public séances to the patenting of the first Ouija Board in 1891. Natale is interested in showing how closely spiritualism was intertwined with entertainment and spectacle from the beginning. Spiritualist séances were attractions, and Natale claims that spiritualism in turn had an influence on the development of modern media culture, from P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth to today’s TV shows about paranormal activity, such as Medium and Supernatural.

Natale’s perspective does help to account for the attraction of so many Victorians to séances and similar spiritualist exhibitions. Along the lines of scholars of “lived religion,” he argues that people attending séances may have been less motivated by questions of “faith” (whether the supernatural manifestation was authentic) than by the pleasure of “participation” in an exciting common experience. There is an interesting phenomenological point at stake here. Natale argues in his afterword that the experience of watching a (fictional) play or film may actually closely resemble the experience of attending a séance. Perhaps one way to phrase this would be that there is a continuum stretching from belief to disbelief and that the traditional “suspension of disbelief” of the consumer of fiction is only one point along this continuum. In fact, the controversies about particular mediums were, as Natale points out, themselves calculated to excite the interest of the public.

Natale offers a “transatlantic perspective,” drawing freely on both British and American sources, which makes sense for such an eminently transatlantic movement. He relies rather heavily on secondary sources and sometimes recounts critical debates within cultural studies where a return to the original sources might be more productive. One of the most interesting features of his study is the discussion of Eusapia Palladino, a rather blatant fraud who was nonetheless one of the most respected mediums at the turn of the 20th century. By that time, the idiom of spiritualism was well established, and Palladino drew on the full range of her predecessors’ techniques both for communication with the other world and for publicity in this one. Despite frequent exposures of her trickery, this child of the Neapolitan working class and her handlers managed to enlist the distinguished sociologist Cesare Lombroso to her cause and even seem to have pulled the wool over the eyes of Nobel Laureate Pierre Curie.

Although Natale’s study offers a helpful corrective to approaches that ignore the entertainment value of spiritualism, he is less convincing when he argues that the Victorians themselves were not concerned with the reality of the apparitions and communications they experienced at séances, just as he has little to say about the intellectuals of the Society for Psychical Research. He states, for example, that “[m]agic and science in the nineteenth century were not contrasted but rather intimately allied.” While the casual participant in a séance may indeed have suspended disbelief or avoided asking deeper questions, there were many people in all social classes who invested a great deal of faith in spiritualism, and others, like Pierre Curie, who looked in vain for confirmation of the reality of spiritualist manifestations. The agony of those who had lost their spouses, parents, or children gave an impetus to spiritualism, just as the theological doubts of the age created fertile ground for alternative religious experiences. Despite the persistent attractions of pseudoscience, many seekers of truth well understood the difference between magic and science.

There was a brief renewal of interest in spiritualism after World War I, but by then artists and novelists had become more skeptical than their Victorian forebears. Joyce’s Ulysses sends up séances: when the spirit of a recently deceased Dubliner is contacted, his message for the living concerns where to find a missing boot.

The desire to speak with the dead, which motivated so much of spiritualism, finds moving expression in one of the final scenes of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. After his cousin Joachim Ziemssen’s death, Hans Castorp attends a séance in his doctor’s office. Following a harrowing and hysterical scene in which the virginal Danish medium Elly Brand seems to be giving birth, the assembled inmates claim to see Ziemssen appear in the visitor’s chair in the office. Hans Castorp seems to see him too. Has the medium actually conjured the dead cousin to life? Is Hans the victim of a sort of collective hallucination? Disobeying the psychoanalyst Dr. Krokowski’s command to speak to the ghost, Hans stands up, turns on the electric light, and leaves the room. He here rejects the mystical attitude that Mann associates not only with spiritualism but also with psychoanalysis: the tendency to indulge unconscious desires and to believe in the magical power of collective identities.

Yet Mann is also criticizing the way the living put the dead to their own use. To do so seems to trivialize the dead by relegating them below our own (usually fairly petty) purposes; it also falsifies the experience of death by allowing us to imagine that the afterlife is not ultimately all that different from our own life. A few pages before Joachim’s ghostly apparition, Mann provides a strikingly cynical account of our attitude to the resurrection of the dead:

And yet, the return of those who have died — or better, the desirability of such a return — is always a complicated, ticklish matter. Ultimately, to put it plainly, it does not exist, this desirability. It is a miscalculation; by the light of cold day, it is as impossible as the thing itself, which would be immediately evident if nature rescinded that impossibility even once; and what we call mourning is perhaps not so much the pain of the impossibility of ever seeing the dead return to life, as the pain of not being able to wish it.

The history of spiritualism underlines what Mann reveals here: the desire truly in question is that of the survivors, and all our efforts to contact the dead are little more than consolation or entertainment.


Pericles Lewis is president of Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

LARB Contributor

Pericles Lewis, professor of Comparative Literature, serves as vice president for Global Strategy and Deputy Provost for International Affairs at Yale University. From 2012 to 2017, he was the founding president of Yale-NUS College, a collaboration between Yale and the National University of Singapore. The author or editor of six books, he was also the founding editor of Yale’s Modernism Lab, an early digital humanities project. He has written for a number of academic journals as well as the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard International Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Times Higher Education.


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